A Good Woman

Gong Ji Young

Artwork by Lee Wan Xiang

All Love is First Love

This is how first love comes to you. You wake up in the morning and open the window to expose the same landscape that you’ve seen every day for a long time. One foggy morning, something changes: the nearby mountain is hidden under thickets of grey clouds and the familiar scenery grows hazy, like an old memory. You make out the face of someone in the fog. Once, you would have ignored this person in passing, but now you can feel him tiptoeing into your life and taking hold of you. The sensation is so sudden that you have to shake your head to wring his image out of your mind. That’s when you know you’re lovesick.

If this is your first love, you ask yourself: How can any other love exist? Can one love without the promise of it being eternal? Still, you approach the situation with hesitation. You inch forward, like each step could provoke a dangerous tumble toward the end.

 

When a very small number of people existed on Earth, humanity lived in awe of nature and listened quietly to its calls in exchange for knowledge and clairvoyance. Back then, humans didn’t love at all. There was too much to do, and they knew better. Tens of thousands of times more energy were required for love than for plucking the fruit off trees or catching fish or putting flowers in one’s hair. Humans were too worn-out for love. Even a few seconds of carnal pleasure expended too much energy, so sex too was avoided. Childbirth, nursing, and raising an infant simply created more work. And so the number of people living on earth decreased.

The gods were nervous. They decided that they needed to craft a new species of human, so they painted a second human genome with a tint of rose. This new genetic code made all labor, no matter how heinous, seem good and just. When the divine pink mutation began to spread, fishing, gathering fruits and even the pain of childbirth morphed into a beautiful coral shade. Such intervention was taxing, and the gods couldn’t placate humanity forever. These logical spirits understood that love and reproduction were vital—even if unpleasant—and they couldn’t bring godly contentedness to humans. Not because they didn’t want to, but because they didn’t have the power. So it goes that the gods ended their experiment, relinquishing humans to their unfortunate lot.

On a rainy early summer morning after the heavens had abandoned mankind, Jeong-in opened her eyes and felt the pain of love.

After washing her face and drying it with a towel, Jeong-in beheld the mountain outside. An enigmatic aura radiated from its cloud-brushed summit: it was hard to believe that this was the same mountain she’d marveled at in childhood. The footsteps of her youthful adventures had worn smooth its trails and charted new paths through the forest floor. Last weekend, Hyeon-jun had driven Jeong-in to Seoul for the first time, and together they tasted exotic foods unfathomable to the palate of a country girl. Now, like never before, this mountain that cleaved her hometown in two brimmed with cryptic energy. Jeong-in abruptly recalled Hyeon-jun’s face, and her heart thudded dully.

Recently, curious things had been happening. All of a sudden, the streets were filled with people who resembled him, and at the post office where she worked, the ring of every phone call burrowed discomfortingly into her chest. When she sent a package or handled registered mail, if she caught sight of a “Kang” or a “Hyeon” or a “Jun” in the recipient’s name, his likeness would flash before her.

Jeong-in’s grandmother died the next day. Her father and older sister Jeong-hui came down to the village for the funeral, but Jeong-in took her grandmother’s death very hard. In the following distress-cloaked days, even as Hyeon-jun gave her the emotional distance appropriate for a next-door neighbor, Jeong-in began to feel that he was dearer to her than her own kin. Hyeon-jun frequent called her at the post office just to hear her voice, and he even sent her a parcel. The thin vial of perfume nestled inside was the loveliest thing Jeong-in had ever owned. In the past, when she’d returned home after a tedious day at the post office, she would hole up in her room and read. If she tired of her books, she challenged grandma to card games like hwatu. She yearned every night for a tomorrow different from today. But now such hope was needless. Everything around her shimmered, as if a magician had said, “Presto!” and drenched her entire world with a new coat of paint. Like never before, Jeong-in’s eyes took in the iridescence of their environs. Her rigid jaw relaxed, and a glowing plumpness stretched across her cheeks. Lips that had always drooped into a frown now swung up slightly, so her whole face appeared round and youthful. Strangers called her “sweetie.” Jeong-in was a magnolia in full bloom.



*

Jeong-in snapped her book closed and remembered how she’d fumbled with a fork and knife during the dinner with Hyeon-jun. She had been so jittery in that elegant restaurant that she could feel sweat trickling from her armpits. Why had her freshly washed and ironed skirt suit seemed so frumpy? But at the time, it had felt different. At least Hyeon-jun hadn’t been ashamed to make eye contact.

He hadn’t tried to hide. He wasn’t on guard, either. To the contrary, Hyeon-jun had been carefree and open, as if he wanted her to ask him even more about himself than she already had. When Jeong-in’s skirt got caught later in the door of his car, Hyeon-jun had leaned over her body from the driver’s seat to wrestle it free. Jeong-in reminisced longingly about the weight of his chest on hers. She wanted to see Hyeon-jun, and she considered calling him as soon as she arrived at the post office tomorrow, even if it was an ill-fated idea. “Oh, I was just wondering what you were doing,” she’d mutter, and then he would know how much she missed him. She ached to see Hyeon-guk as he was in the car, flashing his wide, white grin to the world.

From the cramped corner of Jeong-in’s room, unfamiliar thoughts quietly ambushed her mind. I’m starting to love this man—l-o-v-e love. The realization pinched at her chest and washed over her, the cool shocking her body like she’d bitten into a surprisingly bitter peppermint candy.

The next morning at dawn, Mi-song took the first bus back to Seoul. Jeong-in served breakfast to Yeon-ju before leaving the house for work. Yesterday’s musty smell of rain had dissipated, and today clear summer light struck the Earth as the sun climbed from the horizon.

Jeong-in reckoned she might wither, waiting all day for a call from Hyeon-jun. She had decided that she really did love him. Maybe if someone went up and explicitly questioned her, she would have second-guessed herself: Am I in love? But she was, even as logic tried to convince her otherwise. The funny thing about the truth is that it’s nearest when we are lying to ourselves.

When Jeong-in looked up and discovered a beige Pony Excel blocking her path to the post office, she had to blink before she could comprehend the image in front of her. The car parked in the alley was Hyeon-jun’s. Hyeon-jun’s limbs were unfolded across the driver’s seat as he slept, and sunglasses covered his eyes. When Jeong-in approached the car and put her ear to the window, she heard dainty snores through the glass.

“Hey,” she mumbled while tapping on the door.

Hyeon-jun pressed his eyebrows together as he opened his eyes into the rays. When he saw Jeong-in, his lips moved upward into a cheerful U.

“What brings you here?” she asked with false confidence.

Hyeon-jun removed his sunglasses without losing his joyful look and rubbed his eyes.

“Get in! I left Seoul at dawn to kidnap you, Miss Jeong-in.”

Jeong-in faltered before climbing into the car. Her heart pleaded: Please, take me somewhere far away! Anywhere but this dismal place. By the time she was settled in the passenger’s seat, though, reason had stamped out her sense of adventure, and she lowered her head to stammer, “I’m actually on my way to work…”

“I know,” Hyeon-jun interjected. “But make a little time for me today. It was too hard to wait until the weekend. By the way, I’m flat broke right now.”

“Huh?”

“Last night I played poker with my idiot friends and lost all my money. I’m dying of hunger.”

Hyeon-jun brushed his fingers across his belly and smiled impishly, like a boy. If there was anything Jeong-in had been trained to respond to, it was a man’s hunger.

Jeong-in felt for him. To think that she was the one to buy food for this man who looked like he had everything. But her handbag was empty save for a single thousand-won bill.

“Let me just go home for a minute,” she said. “I don’t actually have any money with me right now.”

Hyeon-jun looked at Jeong-in as if he found her unendurably cute. He chuckled, and Jeong-in’s earlobes flushed.

“I’ll find some cash lying around somewhere.”

“No, don’t do that—that’s—I’ll pay. You came all the way here!”

Hyeon-jun started the car instead of replying, and he shifted the steering wheel away from the village. Crystalline waves sloshed against fields sown with rice seed, and Hyeon-jun sped down country lanes lined with seedlings ankle-deep in water.

Concerns about missing work poked at Jeong-in like a burning needle, but hadn’t every one of her novels told her that this was what love was? Sacrificing everything, eschewing tact, charging forward even if the odds were against you, worrying about nothing in the world other than the meeting of two souls… As she ruminated, Jeong-in realized that her shoulders were hunched. She unwound the tension in her back, and ripples of wind wove through her hair. She glimpsed at Hyeon-jun’s profile once more.

Hyeon-jun’s morning stubble sprawled from his ears to his jawline, and the bluish shadows made Jeong-in’s chest surge with the desire to take a razor and shave off the straggles of hair dotting his chin. Jeong-in’s cheeks smoldered as she envisioned touching him like that. Hyeon-jun drove for a little over an hour before they reached the Gyreryong Mountain exit. The park they turned into was quiet and empty, maybe because it was still early. Hyeon-jun swiveled onto a side road like he was well acquainted with the area, and then they ascended a mountain path so precarious Jeong-in didn’t know if the car would fit. A tidy traditional Korean cabin appeared in front of them.

“Do you mind waiting here for a minute?” Hyeon-jun asked.

He left Jeong-in in the car and jogged inside. Jeong-in crooked her neck out of the window to peek at her surroundings. A bamboo forest drooped lazily behind the house, buttery leaves splayed in all directions. Silvery droplets from an adjacent stream lapped intermittently against the home’s timber frame. The place was ancient, but meticulously preserved. A dog that could pass for sibling to Jeong-in’s childhood pet Nurongi sashayed across the earthen lawn, utterly apathetic to Hyeon-jun’s car. It crouched under the feathery bamboo shadows and yawned as it scratched loose ears with its haunches. Jeong-in recognized this canine apathy.

A peculiar itch on Jeong-in’s heel thrust her attention downward. The bed of her shoe bulged like she was stepping on something. She drew closer and noted a powder pink handkerchief sprouting up from beneath the car mat. Probably a long-forgotten rag… Jeong-in tugged the scarf out and inspected it carefully. Its tattered threads suggested it had been trampled by more feet than just hers.

“Jeong-in! Come over here!” Hyeon-jun burst out of the house and shouted for Jeong-in. She swiftly dropped the kerchief, and before opening the door, she stuffed her discovery back under the seat. She recognized somehow that she shouldn’t tell Hyeon-jun what she’d found.

“This is my house,” Hyeon-jun said, gesturing to the wooden structure behind him. “When my dad was alive, he lived here with his wife, but now it’s mine. I really wanted to show it to you.”

They strode inside, and Hyeon-jun wrapped his arm around one of Jeong-in’s shoulders. Standing by his side, she didn’t catch his slight twitch of disgust when he said the word “wife.” A fleshy young woman cracked the door to the kitchen about halfway open; when spotted Jeong-in, she contorted her lips and slammed the door shut.

“That’s Mal-sun—she runs errands around the house for me. She can’t talk.”

Hyeon-jun led Jeong-in to the backyard. Tendrils of morning sunlight were now reaching toward the ground. The only areas blanketed with shade lay under the dense bamboo thickets.

Hyeon-jun strode over to the well and wrestled its wooden cover off.

“It’s already hot, isn’t it? Let’s wash our hands to cool off.”

He lowered a bucket into the dark opening. Goose bumps speckled the rims of Jeong-in’s ears. This scene was familiar. Didn’t Hyeon-jun remember? Jeong-in queasily imagined a crow cawing in the distance, just like that day ten years earlier.

“No, I’m alright,” Jeong-in said, but she drew nearer anyway.

As Jeong-in brooded over the afternoon she’d met Hyeon-jun, she dipped her head into the well’s damp air. The acrid pungency of moss thrust itself into her nostrils. This stillness… it wasn’t foreign to her. The tiny ripples in the bucket reflected her face, and soon Hyeon-guk’s likeness materialized in the water as well. The tin cup danced at the end of its rope as it submerged again.

“Hey,” Jeong-in snapped, as if to block Hyeon-jun’s approaching visage. Hyeon-jun wore an exterior gentleness that Jeong-in had never seen, but when she spoke, his expression returned to normal. Jeong-in unwittingly stepped back from Hyeon-jun.

“Do you by any chance remember ladling out water for me in your backyard once when I was young?”

“Water? Uh, maybe…”

“It was about ten years ago.”

Jeong-in didn’t add that it was the day of the jinogwi for Hyeon-guk’s wife Eun-ju, to send her spirit to heaven. She figured that mentioning it would hurt his feelings. Jeong-in’s insides felt bloated and squeamish: perhaps this was fate’s call for her to reveal everything to Hyeon-jun. Should she tell him she’d been destined to fall in love with him all along, destined from that moment ten years ago when they’d stood beside a well so similar to this one?

Jeong-in and Hyeon-jun perched atop a rock marking the forest’s entrance. Large pots sprinkled with dust stood guard beside them. Birds serenaded each other, a far-off dog yelped, and wind clamored through bamboo spires. Before long, the din abated, and Jeong-in could again hear Hyeon-jun’s breaths. In, out, in, out.

Jeong-in understood what these wispy huffs meant. This was the breathing of a man leaning against a woman he loved, breathing imbued with a magnetic desire to embrace her. She bent her ear towards Hyeon-jun and listened closely. Strangely, her heart wasn’t quivering at all. She almost felt guilty that it wasn’t. Here was someone who’d hopped into his car at midnight to see her, who’d charged through the dark wanting only her—and she wasn’t excited! But the intimacy, and the dense quietude, was new. Foreboding pricked her skin, and she couldn’t cut through the tremendous silence that was teasing her like a bully. When Jeong-in moved her head over to Hyeon-jun, he extended one arm around the back of her neck, and within a second, his lips were pushing against hers.

Jeong-in had never seen a black hawk when she was younger, but she knew that they circled the skies before dropping like darts to snatch up their prey: Chicks that looked almost obedient as they were swept into the air, without even time to think, this is it. With the kiss, Jeong-in had become one of those chicks.

Whenever Jeong-in had read about kissing in her books, she was suspicious of how humans could touch lips to share tongues and spit. But even though she clenched her teeth and resisted, Hyeon-jun’s tongue made its way in. It surged inward to lick Jeong-in’s pink gums. In the confusion of the moment, Jeong-in pushed his mouth away.

They returned to an awkward silence, weightier than the quiet before their kiss. Jeong-in, unable to look in Hyeon-jun’s direction, risked wiping her lips off. She rubbed at them furiously. Her arm fell to her side and she breathed out, unmoving. Somewhere, a small bird cried out. Cheep, cheep. A sparrow, maybe. Jeong-in still couldn’t face Hyeon-jun, and tears grew on her crowded eyelashes.

“I’ve…never done that before,” she murmured.

She knew how poorly timed her confession was, but she needed to explain, even if it was too late. Hyeon-jun said nothing, and Jeong-in occupied herself by smoothing the hem of her skirt over her knees. The small bird tweeted again.

“When you were in college…did you ever fall in love?” Jeong-in asked naively.

Hyeon-jun scoffed. “I don’t know. I was never really interested in anyone.”

Hi voice was weak, but it sounded like the truth. Jeong-in dared to turn towards Hyeon-jun for the first time since the kiss a few moments earlier. Even from the side, he looked lonely.

“There were lots of girls that I dated, and we’d drink together, and go out to eat, of course. There were also a lot of girls that…I slept with. But I didn’t really like any of them.”

Upon hearing that he’d been with other women, Jeong-in clutched at her skirt. Hyeon-jun looked away: perhaps he was tearing up as well. Jeong-in nodded like she understood. She didn’t, but at least pretending to understand seemed like the only adult thing to do. A cold trickle of pain passed through her ribs. He’d slept with other women…

But did you stay up till dawn, driving hours just to see them? She wanted to ask, but she clamped her mouth shut.

“You said you were hungry, didn’t you?” Jeong-in asked emphatically as she clambered off the boulder, as if to pour the stream of feelings out of her chest. All that longing, for nothing… she strained to smile. Hyeon-jun carefully followed and stood next to Jeong-in.

I need to leave…  He’s nothing to me…  Just like all those women he slept with meant nothing to him.

Jeong-in froze, unable to lift either foot off the ground. And then, Hyeon-jun drew her in and kissed her a second time. His lips burned against hers. Jeong-in considered resisting, but her body refused to move, like she was immersed in a warm bath. One of Hyeon-jun’s hands leapt across her spine and then climbed to her chest. An unknown electricity lit up Jeong-in’s entire body. She had a cautious sense that her body was a flower about to erupt into bloom, a blossom ready to soak up whatever came to it, be it dew or rainwater or vermilion pollen.

The bamboo leaves that wobbled at the slightest breeze disappeared, as did the cobalt summer sky draped over the forest, and the single cloud suspended nimbly in the air. How did I get here? The distant thought skimmed through Jeong-in’s mind but then dissipated like smoke, and Jeong-in closed her eyes. She no longer wanted to flee.

I can be in love, can’t I? All I have to do is treat him well. I’ll love you, Hyeon-jun, I promise: I’ll blow into your heart like a warm wind.

Was twenty-one-year-old Jeong-in acting rashly? Only the most contented among us could dare to admonish Jeong-in for picking Hyeon-jun. Perhaps those of us who judge her have only ever made the right choice, the wise choice—and for that, we claim the most daring and fleeting of aims: happiness. But that day, Jeong-in thought nothing of judgment. For an instant, all the simple country girl from the post office could think was: I’ve chosen this love.

The kiss finally ended. Jeong-in and Hyeon-jun ate lunch together and left the house close to dusk. And for the curious reader: no, Jeong-in didn’t lose her so-called purity that day. But there was something else going on that she didn’t know about. Myeong-su had been suspended from school and was back in the village, and he had spent the entire afternoon waiting for her outside the post office.

translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buehler